Swim, bike, run, write.

Ironman Zurich 2019 race report


I lay there staring at the ceiling of our hotel room in Zurich, the thoughts of all the possible outcomes of race day only drowned out by the sound of my heart beat - elevated by nerves and anticipation. You’d think my body and mind would have got the hang of handling pre-race nerves by now. It felt like I’d been asleep all of five minutes when the alarm went off. 3.25am. Race morning was here.

After my usual race day ritual of porridge, coffee, a bottle of High5 Zero and obsessively going through my check-list one last time, Graham and I headed down to the race start - chauffeured by my Dad through the torrential rain that had decided to come along and liven things up a tad. First on the agenda was final bike checks, loading my bottles and nutrition on to my trusty Canyon steed. I put my second bottle in the rear cage only for it to slide straight through: the bottom bracket snapped off. Oh good. I’d checked my bike over meticulously before I racked it the day before (and when I say “I”, of course I mean Graham checked it while I stood watch - he is both my fiancĂ© and live-in bike mechanic!) Brakes, gears, tyres, all the nuts and bolts. Everything, except the bottle cages. A lesson most definitely learnt. Graham quickly fashioned a make-shift contraption out of elastic bands to help hold the bottle in place. Sorted - or so we hoped.

As always, time seemed to be on fast-forward. After a thorough warm-up - with my usual pre-race anthem (“Thunderstruck” by AC/DC) playing through my headphones - it was time to grease myself up with Bodyglide like a Christmas goose, don the wetsuit and line up for the swim start. After one final glance at the messages I’d written on my hands - “never give up” and “give it everything” - I ran in to Lake Zurich. Although, knowing me, it probably looked less like running and more like a T-rex trying to get into a paddling pool. Regardless, Ironman #2 was officially underway and it was time to put the hundreds of hours of training into practice.

Swim

Lake Zurich is stunning. My swim? Not so much. I’d go as far as calling it a little bit crap on this occasion. On the plus side, the water was lovely and for the most part I didn’t really have any issues finding space - meaning I took far less of a battering compared to the water-based whack-a-mole that I experienced at Ironman Copenhagen last year. I got to the second buoy and had just about settled in when I started to feel sick, with that horrible acidic feeling at the back of my throat. It’s happened before (I once threw up in my mouth a little bit while swimming on a particularly bouncy day at Box End and had to swallow it!) so I assumed that I’d just swallowed a bit of water and it would pass. Unfortunately, that slightly queasy feeling would stay with me all day - only clearing off for the last 5km of the run. C’est la vie.

I’ve been having issues with cramp all year and it’s something I was really quite worried about going into the swim. I’ve been trying to sort it out for ages - nutrition, hydration, salt intake, magnesium spray and a diligent mobility and stretching routine every evening for several months. And yet, pretty much every time I’ve swum in my wetsuit I’ve been haunted by that horrible twitchy feeling that my calves are about to cramp - meaning I’m terrified to kick properly in case they go. Answers on a postcard if anyone has any ideas - I’m thinking my next step will be to get my swim style looked at and maybe try a different wetsuit.

Anyway. The swim was really just a case of trying to get through it safely, without getting cramp or a black eye. For me, the race would truly start once I got my backside on my bike saddle. With hundreds of wetsuit-clad limbs flailing around me I made it down the back straight and round the penultimate buoy. The torrential rain, which had teased us all by easing off just before the start, had returned with a vengeance. As always in Ironman, the swim seemed to simultaneously take forever and pass by in a flash. I had transition in my sights. I’d just started to let myself think “thank the triathlon Gods, no cramp” when I got that familiar twitchy sensation. Not now legs, please not now. I just about made it to the swim exit, putting my feet down on the lake bed to stand up, when both calves seized into excruciating cramp. My natural instinct would be to roll around on the ground, swearing loudly until it passed. But this was race day and faffing around most certainly wasn’t on the plan, so it was time for my first “suck it up princess” moment of the day. I was going to have to just crack on and hope that getting on dry land would stave off the cramp. I ran up and over the bridge to T1, and thankfully the movement forced my pesky calves into submission. Not today boys, we’ve got a race to complete.

It was quite possibly the slowest swim I’ve ever done in a race - coming in at 1 hour 20 mins with my watch clocking almost 4km (again, need to learn to swim straight!) - but I was out and in one piece. Wetsuit off, helmet on. Now we race.

Bike

The lashings of rain Zurich had treated us to had made the roads soggy to say the least. We’d ridden some of the course along the lake earlier in the week so I knew there would be a fair few drain covers to look out for - but as long as I used my common sense I would be fine. The heat of the day was on its way and the roads would soon dry out. I focused on tucking down on to the aero bars, getting some hydration on board and settling in to my target power. 

Soon, we reached the first “no aero bars” zone, after the first short climb of the day. Having made it through the slightly technical descent and round the corner, the road flattened out and straightened out. Instinctively, I went to get back down on the bars. It’s just how I like to ride - down on the bars unless it’s not safe or sensible to do so. The moment my elbows hit the pads I realised what I was doing - we hadn’t got to the sign that said we were allowed to be back down on the bars yet - and instantly hopped back up on to the bull horns. Idiot. It was a momentary lapse of concentration and a typical race-day muppet moment which, of course, happened right in front of a referee. I saw him note down my number and instantly panicked that I might have just got myself DQ’d. I had two choices - freak out and throw the race away before anything was confirmed, or carry on working hard and wait to see what happened. It’s not over, until it’s over.

It was another hour before a referee on a motorbike finally pulled up alongside me. He fumbled with his penalty cards, and my heart very nearly exploded when I thought he was about to pull out a red disqualification card. Thankfully, it was only a yellow. “Jennifer Lucas? You have a 1 minute penalty for being down on the aero bars in a no bars zone - you need to look out next time!” I was both annoyed - at my own idiocy - and relieved that my race wasn’t over. It’s frustrating to get a penalty - especially when there were other people out there up to all manner of mischief and going unpunished - sucking wheels, crossing the white lines on the road (one guy did this to overtake a referee on a motorbike!) - but ultimately, I cocked up.  And on the plus side, it distracted me for the majority of the first long uphill drag towards Egg which incorporated the infamous climb entitled “the beast”. 

They say bad things come in threes, so I figured after the bottle cage breaking, the leg cramp and the penalty that would be the mishaps over and done with. Then I looked down and noticed my rear bottle cage was swinging precariously from side to side. The elastic bands had broken. I made an executive decision to only drink out of my front bottle (which had my Torq energy solution in it) and hope that the rear bottle - which contained water and a High5 zero salt tab would stay aboard until I could ditch the front bottle and move that one forward. This meant having to grab water bottles at the aid stations to rinse my mouth out every so often, which slowed me down a touch as usually I cruise straight through. The back bottle clung on until about the 70km mark I think, at which point the entire cage snapped off and went flying down the road. Auf wiedersehen my friend! Luckily, the first half of the bike hadn’t been that hot so I could make do with the Saltstick tablets I had in my snack box for electrolytes and do without the bottle.

The climbing didn’t feel that bad on the first lap, and before I knew it I was making my way up Heartbreak Hill with the cries of “Hopp, hopp, hopp! Allez, allez, allez!” and “Ja, super frau!” ringing in my ears. It was so much fun - people really aren’t joking when they say this part of the course is like riding in the Tour de France. My parents along with my future mother-in-law and sister-in-law were waiting for me at the top, and it gave me such a boost to see them. After the stress of all the mishaps, I finally started to enjoy myself. No more muppet moments, from now on I meant business. 

Zurich really turned up the heat on the second lap, making the long drag of climbing towards Egg feel that little bit more arduous, but I kept focused and made sure to strike the balance between working hard but leaving enough for the run. You see so many people grinding away on the climbs, surging up only to have to roll along at the top because they’ve exhausted themselves. It’s easy to get carried away with trying to get an impressive sounding bike split, forgetting to give the awaiting marathon the respect it deserves - which ultimately will make you way slower overall. I knew that I wanted to run a strong marathon so I kept it controlled, letting those who wanted to cat and mouse with me have their fun while I stuck to my own plan. Blinkers on - other than to occasionally appreciate the views.

Soon I was making my way along the lake again, ready for one more wiggle up Heartbreak Hill before heading back towards transition. 6 hours 19 minutes later, I was getting off the bike. There’s still work to be done, but I’m really happy to have posted a bike split that was only a few minutes slower than my time at Copenhagen despite Zurich having almost double the climbing and way higher temperatures to contend with. Take that, last year me.

Run

I ditched my bike and grabbed my run bag, taking the time to quickly spray on some extra factor 50 - which turned out to be a total waste of time because I would soon soak it all off at the aid stations and end up looking like a drumstick lolly by the end of the day. Pale girl problems.

The advantage of this being my second Ironman was that I knew I was capable of running the marathon. I forced yet another energy gel down, ignoring the queasy feeling in my stomach, and headed out on to the course. I was feeling strong and my pace was faster than I expected. I knew my legs had it in them, so it was all going to come down to my head - could I grit my teeth and hold the pace until the end?

It was really hot by this point. Naturally, I’d been monitoring the Zurich weather forecast for weeks prior to race day so I’d done as much prep for the heat as possible - completing my longest brick training session at the hottest time of day during the UK heatwave a few weeks back and spending time in the sauna in the run up to race day to get my body used to high temperatures. It paid off, as despite the sun glaring down on my pasty skin, I felt pretty good. I focused on keeping my core temperature down by running through the cold showers at each aid station and shoving cups of ice down my sports bra at every opportunity. I was still feeling pretty sick, meaning I couldn’t take on as much nutrition as I’d planned - but thankfully all of those early morning pre-breakfast long runs had done the trick and I still felt strong. I might have looked like a drowned rat, but at least I wasn’t running like one.

I hit the 20km mark and was still running faster than I thought I’d be able to. 22km to go: keep pushing, keep running. The support out on the course was great - my Stolen Goat race suit made me easy to spot and soon people were recognising me each time I came back round, shouting my name as I approached. My family were still out on support crew duties (an endurance event in itself) and it kept me motivated, knowing I was going to get to see them shortly before the end of each lap.

10km to go. The last lap is a complete blur. Each time I looked at my watch to check my pace, the message from myself to “never give up” was right there waiting for me. As much as it might have felt nice to slow down a touch, I was determined to give it everything. I focused on nothing but turning my legs over, counting to 100 over and over again to keep my head in the game. While still smiling and giving out the odd high five to the kids out supporting - because it’s amazing what a power up the positive energy of the crowds can give you.

5km to go. I checked my overall race time and realised that, if I could keep my pace up, I had a shot at coming in under 12 hours. It was time to really push myself. My heart felt like it was fluttering out of my chest, my legs were starting to tighten up, but my head was 100% ready to go all in and empty the tank.

Finally, I was collecting my final lap band with just 1km to go. I could taste the finish line and the tears of joy and relief started to bubble up - but it wasn’t over yet and there was no way I was going to slow down at all and risk coming in at 12:00:01. My final kilometre was only 4 seconds slower than my first kilometre. A testament to how far my running has come this year. It hurt like hell, but I pushed right until the end which was what I came here to do.

I rounded the last corner and made my way up that glorious red carpet to the finish, not entirely sure if I was crying, laughing or both. I crossed the finish line, body and mind a little bit broken but ecstatic with what I’d achieved. No matter how much it hurts, how many challenges you face along the way - it’s always, always worth it. I’d done it. Ironman #2, completed in 11 hours, 58 minutes, 11 seconds.

I posted a 4 hour 3 minute marathon: the second fastest marathon time in my age group, and the 30th fastest run split out of all the women in the race. Not bad for the girl that used to run like she was sitting on an invisible chair!

Done

I can’t really remember much after I crossed the finish line. A volunteer took my timing chip off and placed a medal round my neck. I stumbled around in a daze - I really thought I’d be able to keep some sort of dignity this year, but of course I cried like a child again and had to be shepherded to the athlete area but another kind volunteer.

I found Graham - who was there to “just get round” in order to validate the Kona world championships slot he’d won in the Kona Dreaming 40th anniversary draw earlier in the year - and spent about 10 minutes just trying to string a sentence together. It’s funny how Ironman racing makes you feel superhuman and like a blithering idiot all at once. Some pasta and a few sips of beer later, I was just about ready to hobble out and reunite with the Lucas-Hill support crew.

So there we have it - Ironman #2 completed and as ever, I’m thrilled, exhausted and hungry for more. I finished an hour behind the girl that won my category, and 38 minutes behind third place. I’m still so new to the sport and I’ve come such a long way from the girl that could barely ride a road bike without falling off in 2016. I feel like I’ve got so much more in me, it’s just a case of working hard and staying determined. 

I’m already thinking about the next adventure and I’m quite excited to pester my coach, Campbell Noon, once I get back to the UK to start piecing together our next battle plan. But for now, I’m off to have a beer. I feel like I might have just earned one.

If you made it through this long, self-indulgent post - I don’t have a medal for you but I do have a thank you. The online triathlon community has been so supportive and encouraging - I’m never short of someone to provide inspiration, motivation or a “don’t be shit” when I need it, and for that I’m so grateful.


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